Management Pardon me, what?

Meeting Creatures

Worst meeting ever.

It’s not that the attendee list is wrong. All the right people are there and they’re bright and they are the decision makers. It’s not that the topic is boring or poorly defined. It’s a big deal. The problem with this meeting is that it’s never going to end.

See, about a year ago, one of our senior engineers was reading our contract with our application server, he read “Supports ends in two years. We’re done. You’re on your own.” He freaked out, called a meeting, freaked out again in the meeting to make sure it was a big deal, so we agreed it was a big deal. To-do lists were generated, follow-up meetings were scheduled… it all had a pleasant “Look what we can do when the sky is falling” vibe. Love it when folks scurry with purpose.

Present day. It’s A YEAR later and we haven’t made the switch. The senior engineer who raised the red flag A YEAR ago is, surprisingly, actually in this version of the meeting although he is a shell of the engineer he was a year ago. I guarantee he’s not going to say a thing because he knows what I know…

… this is the worst meeting ever.

We knew nine months ago what we needed to do to make the transition to the new server application, but the problem is, it’s really fucking scary. It one of those “We’re not going to know half of what we need to do until we start” scenarios and starting means betting the company. Once we begin the transition there is no going back and this scares the hell out of everyone including the VP who will not make a decision.

Each month for the past twelve months, we have had the same meeting. This is the problem, these are the risks, this is what we know, this is what we don’t know. All that preliminary crap takes thirty minutes and since it’s been a month since we last heard it, everyone needs to be reminded of all the intricacies. Heads nod while I slowly dig my nails into the conference room table. We then begin the chasing our tail portion of the meeting where all the same questions are asked and answered again. This is why the senior engineer is no longer engaged. He’s tired of repeating himself.

Meetings are composed of people, but more interesting, meetings are composed of creatures. These are the roles, traits, and quirks of the people who show up in your meetings and after you’ve sat through a couple thousand, you’ll see the same creatures keep showing up. Knowing who they are can help you understand your meeting. Knowing what they can do, can save you time.

The Anchor

Slogan: “It’s all about me”

The Anchor is the big cheese. This is the person that everyone is talking to and this the person who will decide on whatever needs deciding. When this person talks, everyone in the meeting is listening.

Meetings are power struggles between those who want something and those who don’t want to give it to them. If you’re walking into a meeting and you need something, your first job is to identify this person. This person is the reason the meeting is happening and if you don’t know who they are, you’re missing essential subtext. It’s actually pretty easy. Just wait for someone to say something controversial and see who everyone looks at.

There are two major things to be wary of with your Anchor. First, make sure they know their job. For standing meetings with the usual suspects, the role is obvious, but for one-time meetings, you can’t assume The Anchor knows it’s all about them. A clear agenda which anoints The Anchor right out the gate is the best way to make sure everyone knows who the decision maker is.

Second, you’ve got to know what to do when there is no Anchor present. You’re fifteen minutes in and you know the Sr. VP who is actually going to help here is not present. Sure, there are eight other people here that sure like to talk, but the best move is a reschedule. You’re wasting time.

Laptop Larry

Slogan: “Pardon me, what?”

Larry is easy to identify. He’s got his portable in front of him. That’s him right there. If the portable isn’t somehow not enough, just look for lots of intense nodding from Larry… that’s him not listening.

Larry pisses me off. He goes to regularly scheduled meetings that he knows are going to be 75% irrelevant to him, so he brings his portable so he can work. Turns out he doesn’t work because he’s spending half his time half-listening to the meeting proceedings. Go read that last sentence again. He’s not working and he’s not really listening which means he is actually a net negative when it comes to productivity.

Ask Larry to put his portable away. I mean it. If you can’t vivaciously participate in a meeting you were invited to, you should not be there. “Rands Rands Rands… I take notes on my portable.” No, you don’t. You take notes and when I use some proper noun you don’t recognize, you surf Wikipedia. If notes must be taken, designate one person to do it, I want you asking me what the proper noun is… not consulting Wikipedia.

A useful meeting is not a speech; it’s a debate. If I’m up there flapping my lips and you disagree or don’t understand, I don’t want you to nod, I want you to yell at me.

Mr. Irrelevant

Slogan: “I’m just happy to be here”

Why is Mr. Irrelevant here? He doesn’t have anything to add, he’s just all smiles that someone took the time to include him in what must be a very important meeting. He is mostly harmless.

The problem that needs solving with regards to Mr. Irrelevant is figuring out who invited this guy to the meeting? What were they trying to do? Why is it that you’re paying Mr. Irrelevant to sit in this meeting, nod a lot, and take notes? If you uninvited him, he’s not going to be pissed, but the question is, who is going to be pissed? Why did they invite Mr. Irrelevant? Is he a mole? Is someone gathering essential information because they can’t be there?

There is a reason Mr. Irrelevant is in your meeting and you need to understand that reason before you punt him.

Chatty Patty

Slogan: “I don’t shut up”

Another easy identification. This one never shuts up. Ever.

Your main issue here is time. Chatty Patty is incapable of conveying thoughts in a concise manner which means everyone time she opens her mouth, everyone else is checking out.

Your first job is to figure out whether Chatty Patty is actually Ms. Irrelevant. Fortunately, getting her talking is no issue. Your job is figure out whether the signal to noise ratio is acceptable. Once you’ve determined if she actually needs to be there, your next job is containment and, to do that, you’ve got to play her game.

Containing Patty is a simple process of asking questions in a manner that she wants to hear them meaning with lots and lots of words. Questions for Chatty Patty must be precise so she can’t verbally wander. Rather than ask, “How is QA?”, you ask, “Patty, I’ve read your test plan, your current test results, and I understand you have a brief assessment for us regarding the quality of the product. Could you please give us a brief assessment?”

You’re going to feel silly constructing these lengthy requests, but not only are you giving Patty a well defined space to wander in, you’re also saving time for everyone in the meeting.

Warning, don’t ever ever argue with Chatty Patty in a meeting setting. Combining Patty’s natural loquaciousness with emotion is a recipe for disaster. Remember, she already doesn’t know how to end a thought. Throw some emotion in there and she might never stop.

Translator Tim

Slogan: “I know every acryonym ever. FTW!”

Tim is the first of two utility creatures. His role is simple, he speaks the language of everyone in the room. When hardware and software get together to talk about the issue, Tim is the guy who translates software acronyms into hardware acronyms. Tim is essential when you’ve got groups of folks who come from very different parts of the organization.

You need to be wary if Tim isn’t neutral with regard to the topic that he’s translating. If he’s biased, he’s translating in his favor which means if Tim is on your team, you’re in a good shape. If he’s not, you might want to go find your own Tim.

Sally Synthesizer

Slogan: “What he’s saying is…”

I love Sally because Sally’s job is to end meetings. As our second utility creature, Sally can grab the conversation, no matter how messy it might be, and derive the basic truth of what was just discussed.

In large group meetings with a diverse set of personalities, you must have a Sally in the room because she is not missing a thing that’s being said and, more importantly, she’s aware of the relative significance not only of what is being said, but also who is saying it. She knows who the Anchor is, she knows how to shut Patty up, and while it might appear that she’s just stating the obvious, she’s providing essential forward momentum to the meeting.

Like Tim, if Sally is biased in a meeting, she’s synthesizing in her favor. Also, Sallys can get drunk with power because her skill is invaluable. When she starts to think she’s an Anchor, you’ve got a problem.

Curveball Kurt

Slogan: “The sky is pancakes”

Kurt is easy to identify. You have no clue what he’s talking about.

The first order of business once you’ve identified Kurt is figuring out if he’s Mr. Irrrelevant. This can be tricky since whenever you ask him a question, you see his lips move, he’s clearly speaking English, but you have no idea what he’s trying to say. Hopefully, Translator Tim or Sally Synthesizer is in the room to help out here.

Your absolute worst situation is when your Anchor is a Curveball. It happens more than you’d think. The most likely case is combining groups on vastly different parts of the organization chart. Think of executives brainstorming with engineers. Every executive wants to think they can chum it up with anyone in the organization, but when it comes to their day to day job, they literally speak a different language. This means you’ve got Curveball Kurt on both sides of the table. This is an impossible meeting without some type of Translator and Synthesizer in the room.

The Snake

Slogan: “I’m actually the anchor. Ssssssh!”

Some Anchors like to hide. It goes like this:

Big meeting with the executives. Sally gets up, sets the agenda, asks Larry to please, for the last time, put the laptop away, and then the meeting begins. Curveball Kurt gets up and says something unintelligible. Translator Tim jumps in and translates for Kurt, but he translates to the executive in the RIGHT corner. Aha! There’s your Anchor. Pay attention to the RIGHT corner.

The meeting proceeds. Mr. Irrelevant says something funny, everyone laughs and then wonders when someone will remove this boob from the meeting. Finally, we reach the crescendo of the meeting and the decision needs to be made and all heads turn to the Anchor. We wait for a second and he says, “Snake? Your thoughts?”

The Snake is the Anchor in hiding and he’s in the LEFT corner. For someone reason, he’s got the fake Anchor out there taking the heat while he sits there taking it all in. Maybe he doesn’t like the spotlight. Maybe there is some strategic advantage to the room not knowing he’s the man, but he is. Fortunately for everyone, the Snake move only works a few times within a company before word gets out who the real Anchor is.

Back to the worst meeting ever. It’s the last one I ever attended because when I walked in, I knew what the problem was. We all thought we had an Anchor in our VP of Engineering, but, the problem is, he’s wasn’t willing to assume the Anchor role. Since we had a bet the company decision on the table, we should’ve grabbed the CEO the moment it was clear the VP couldn’t anchor the meeting.

You might think we were also missing Sally Synthesizer. Someone to capture the essence of what happened, but that was me. I was trying to move the meeting forward by capturing the major thoughts and repeating them for everyone to hear, but it was a useless task since the Anchor didn’t want his job.

Forty-five minutes after the meeting began, I did something I’d never ever done before. I walked out of a meeting where I was a key player because I simply couldn’t waste any more time on this uselessness. Stood up, walked out, and slammed the door. Yes, it’s an emotional move which is almost always a bad move in business, but near the top of my list of professional pet peeves is the following:

DO NOT WASTE MY TIME.

[11/21/06 Addendum]: I was writing a friend about this piece and here’s the line I used to describe it: “A silly article called “Meeting Creatures” where I call people names…” Something is not karmically aligned when you make fun of your own work a week after you publish it.

These names are not intended to paint a complete picture of the people they describe. They merely give you a starting point for understanding where your particular creature is coming from. In reality, Chatty Patty is also Translator Tim and sometime she’s the Anchor. In reality, people are messy.

While I’m happy to provide you a starting point for identifying troublesome creatures in your meeting, your job isn’t done there. Your job is to figure not how to alienate people by calling them names, it’s to figure out how to include them by taking time to understand what they need and doing your best to give it to them.

12 Responses

  1. Ugh. So timely. Today was the monthly 2-hour operations meeting. 25 people. I am one of 5 women. 2 pm to 4 pm…at least. Today I actually made it to 3:20 pm before I bailed (had to wait for my topic to come up on the agenda). It’s a useful meeting for most…but I think I’m Ms. Irrelevant on your roster.

  2. Avish 10 years ago

    Great article, Rands! Really enjoyed it.

    Way too many typos, though. I’d hate to print it to the team in this shape… (hint hint).

  3. Schlumpf 10 years ago

    While reading this article I was interrupted by my calendar informing me I had a meeting. 40 minutes later I’m back. I definitely was Ms. Irrelevant (after listening politely for 20 minutes it took me another 20 Minutes to convince everybody else I was irrelevant because Chatty Patty kept interrupting me).

    My question: if nobody else knows, should I myself at least know why I was invited? “Because the organizer thinks I know something which I already told him I definitely don’t know, and he doesn’t believe me” ?

  4. Well said. I wish I wrote this piece. On a side note, is it bad to have visualized all of your characters as people in Dilbert?

  5. Ok, more edited version has been posted. Sorry, still fine tuning the copy editing process.

  6. Jim Bullock 10 years ago

    There’s another player off stage “The Producer” perhaps, or maybe “The Meta-Boss.” Why is a no-progress meeting continuing? In your story, somebody a layer up from the VP is asleep at the switch. People are too expensive to waste like this, and the endless rehashing too ennervating to the organization as they watch progress not happen.

    Even when the collective doesn’t have the authority to Decide, there are two other closing moves: recommend, and punt. So, it is “bet the company.” Probably a decision that ought to go to the CEO and maybe even the board. Fine. Scope out what it might look like and bring the CEO a recommendation. Or declare yourselves incompetent to do so. Either way, progress happens.

    Making that call belongs to The Anchor, but can be prodded by The Synthesizer. Bring out the fact of the flailing, and put those closing moves on the table as other ways to exit.

    If the meta-boss in your example is any good, somebody is in trouble already anyway, starting with the VP. Maybe all of the people in that Worst Meeting Ever are in trouble by now. They would be if I were the boss.

    I think, once you walk out, you maybe ought to keep walking – figuratively at least – to have a “Heads’ up” with the meta-boss a layer up. Something like this:

    “Boss, I see a risk for you here. We’ve been talking about The Server Demise for a year. We only have a year left – we’ve burned half the time since we recognized this was a problem, and don’t even have a play yet. What we’re hacking at is big – inevitable, unavoidable, months at least, we can’t understand it all until we start and it is bet-the-company big.

    I’ve tried to instigate some progress, and failed, so far. Thing is, the wall keeps coming at us at the same speed. So, you need to know – there’s a bit risk out there, we know about it, and we’re stuck.”

    Whatever happens after that at least won’t be boring.

  7. >I think, once you walk out, you maybe ought to keep

    >walking – figuratively at least – to have a “Heads’ up”

    >with the meta-boss a layer up.

    There probably is a meta-boss higher up, but the question is if you are ‘Anchor’ enough for yourself to do something about it ?

    The phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’ wasn’t invented for no reason…

  8. “Your job is to figure not how to alienate people by calling them names, it’s to figure out how to include them by taking time to understand what they need and doing your best to give it to them.”

    Meeting Creatures is a great set of role definitions or archetypes.

    The biggest challenge in solving a problem is defining it adequately enough. I’d consider Meeting Creatures a useful tool for defining the problem with a meeting.

  9. Konrad 10 years ago

    So, don’t leave us hanging! What happened with the Very Important Issue the meetings were supposed to be addressing?

    For some reason anecdotes of when things go wrong are more interesting than guides to doing it right. (Next week on FOX: When managers attack!)

  10. One of the attendees of one of my regular meetings could be characterised as Slow Sam.

    The meeting moves at a certain speed, there are a lot of facts thrown around and summaries given and most people in the room pause, synthesise the information, get the point, nod, and get on with the debate. However, three minutes later Slow Sam will start looking bewildered, and eventually stop the meeting and take everybody back and question the complete line of implicit argument that’s just been handled because she doesn’t get it, or doesn’t agree with the conclusion because she’s either missing or ignoring some vital facts. The problem is she slows the pace of the meeting right down whilst everyone reformulates metaphors or reframes the question or answer til she’s satisfied she’s understood and agreed with the assumption that seemed so simple ten minutes ago that everybody else just took for granted. Slow Sam is great at getting the Laptop Larries to take their portables out as they lose interest quickly and don’t help at all, or worse, look it up on Wikipedia in a misguided attempt to help.

    In my case, Slow Sam is sometimes the Snake, or at least her opinion is highly valued by our Anchor. So she really does set the pace of the meeting. She really is indispensible, too. 90% of the time the process is frustrating, however, the other 10% of the time she does actually find some flaw in the logic, or give the other members of meeting time to think laterally and challenge the assumption that was made in new and exciting ways.

    Beware of raising Slow Sam’s ire, by not explaining stuff she needs to know. She will end up stopping the meeting completly and just throw remarks around that make her sound like Curveball Kurt. In fact, She is sometimes difficult to distinguish from Curveball Kurt. Also, beware of spending too much time explaining to Slow Sam, at some point the Anchor or a Sally needs to cut the losses and move the meeting on.

  11. Adam Spooner 10 years ago

    I was a Mr. Irrelevant today. I’m pretty sure I was there because I’m part of the project and needed to hear/soak up some info. So maybe I wasn’t irrelevant… okay, I was.

  12. One more character I had at one job: The Anchor’s BOSS, who came to about every fourth meeting. As a result, we had to spend pretty much the entire alloted meeting time catching him up since his last visit. Also, he liked to hear himself talk, so the meetings he attended typically went WAY over time.

    Slightly OT, but that’s my big fanaticism with respect to meetings: I don’t care if you’re in the middle of a sentence, I don’t care if you’re about three thoughts away from perfecting cold fusion – when the meeting time is over, the meeting is over. A lot of these people have another meeting immediately after, and you’re keeping everyone in that meeting sitting on their hands until yours finishes.